Coral Forest

crochet_forest_7Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set [...] Click to continue reading this post

Making and Baking….

Back in LA, I had an amusing day the other day going from this in the TV studio…
photo_laser_mirage_shoot_small involving a laser and liquid nitrogen (so, around -320 F, if you must use those units), to this in the kitchen:
tasty_things_1 involving butter, flour, water and shortening… (and once in the oven, around +350 F) which ultimately resulted in this: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Aspen Art Museum Opening

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I just got back from the Aspen Art Museum‘s new building. They’ve been having a members-only series of nights before the big opening to the public in a few days, and an invitation was sent along to Aspen Center for Physics people to come along, and so (of course) I did. It was a nice thing to do at the end of a day of working on revising drafts of two papers, before settling down to a nice dinner of squash, green beans, tomatoes, and lemon-pepper pasta that I made, all from the Saturday Farmers’ Market. But I digress.

Let me say right at the outset that the building is fantastic. There will no doubt be arguments back and forth about the suitability of the building for the town, and so forth (and there have been), but as a space for both art and community (and to my mind, those should go together in a city’s main art space) it is simply [...] Click to continue reading this post

In Motion…

subway_sketch_5th_august_2014_smallBack in Aspen. I went back to LA for a long weekend, and my travel back to Aspen today gave me a lot of good thinking time. Also, I got a few very quick drawings done, such as the one on the right of a cooperative fellow (looking at his phone) on the subway on my way to Union station to take the LAX Flyaway bus.

I’ve been thinking about two projects, one physics and the other about physics, going back and forth between the one and the other, trying to not let them interfere with each other. The “about physics” one is of course the graphic physics book project. In itself it is in two parts. I’m adding more pages from time to time – drawing, inking, and painting/colouring when I can – and I’m also having the odd conversation with potential publishers from time to time, and sending off proposal packages to appropriate places that accept them… trying to explain the nature of the project to those who are willing to listen to something new and exciting. As I’ve said before, “new and exciting” are not words that most publishers want to [...] Click to continue reading this post

Fireworks!

It is the 4th of July, and I hope you who are celebrating it have a good time today!
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I can’t really let the day pass without sharing with you the episode of Fail Lab in which we examine fireworks and pyrotechnics with an appropriate cautionary note, and a dash of humour. Enjoy it again if you’ve seen it before, and don’t forget to check out all twelve episodes. You can read my discussion of the whole series (excellently made by Patrick Scott) starting here, and there’s more here. Click below for the episode: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Morning Sex

gardening_3rd_july_2014_2Yep. This is an exciting new discovery for me. No, it is not what you think! I’m talking about gardening matters. It seems that a lot of my cucumber and squash plants are not producing a great deal this year, (with several small squashes not developing much before falling off) and I could not figure out why. On the other hand, I’ve done a better job of building sun shields for them, to stop them being fried by the intense heat over the course of a hot day. I now think that maybe these things are connected. First of all, I’m not seeing a lot of bees of any sort in the garden, and so I wonder if it is simply that there’s not a lot of pollination going on. Couple this with the fact that the sunscreens (some quite low) are probably hiding them from some bees that might be passing by, I’ve begun to wonder if it is time to help things along a bit. [...] Click to continue reading this post

Magazine Practice

magazine_sketch_16_06_2014_smallAs a way of degaussing from the heat of physics research involved in producing the recent paper, I spent a bit of time getting my hand back into some proper drawing shape… I looked into some magazines and catalogues for interesting faces and found a couple.

magazine_sketch_18_06_2014_smallThe woman was done more or less directly in ink, which is a good challenge for the eye – you must be sure about a line before you put it down, since you’ve not got a second chance. A day or two later I sat in a cafe after a visit to a garden centre to pick up some supplies, to draw another interesting face I found (in a gardening catalogue). This was done more carefully, starting by doing a quick pencil sketch first for accurate layout, and then doing ink afterwards. Since people are sometimes curious about process, I include below a sequence of stages on this one as well. Enjoy.
[...] Click to continue reading this post

Swoosh!

swooshWell, I sort of disappeared there for about a week. I got lost in some really interesting physics and had a lot of fun doing it.

I kept walking away, and it kept bringing me back. There’s that fun groove one can get into that other theorists will recognise: You hit an interesting vein where you can calculate interesting results in a particular model, and you just can’t help yourself computing more and more [...] Click to continue reading this post

Stockpiling Notebooks

notebook_supplyAs you know from my writings and sketches, I like to carry a notebook. People often ask me what types I use, or assume that I use the (increasingly fashionable) Moleskine books. I like Moleskine books (the little 3inx5in ones for example), and have used them a lot in the past, but actually I prefer the books by HandBook Journal Co., (made by Global Art Materials). The surface of the paper is more flexible, in my opinion. It has a little more tooth than standard Moleskine, which makes mark-making with pencil much surer, and it also takes wetting better,airline_sketches_9th_july_2013 so you can work with a little wetness as well, such as lots of ink, or watercolour (paint- or pencil-based). That allows for crisp drawings like the one on the right (click for larger view – more about these sketches here), right alongside physics research musings and computations in pen and ink line on the pages shown below on the left (those notes pertain to the paper I discussed here.)

I tend to carry one of the 8.25inx5.5in landscape ones (although I love the 5.5in square ones too). (See more chat about them here.) They allow a good [...] Click to continue reading this post

Honest Time Travel?

On Tuesday I hung out with some of the Screen Junkies folks who you may know from the hilarious “Honest Movie Trailers” web series (seriously, if you’ve not seen any of them, please go right now and have a look). We had a fun chat about time travel in movies, and presenter Hal Rudnick and I bonded over various movies old and new. The final version of the show is up on YouTube (embed below), and I’m bummed that I did not get to meet the other guest, Christina Heinlein (JPL), who seems fun – and is a descendant of, yes, that Heinlein. I love the idea that she works at JPL, helping make possible the space exploration that Robert Heinlein helped inspire us all about in his writing. Anyway, enjoy the short piece (I wish you could see a bunch of the other material too… we really had a great chat about the ins and outs of time travel, but a lot of it inevitably ended up not making the cut…)

I could not resist talking about my view of this (perhaps growing) trend of using time travel as a means of resetting movie franchises (see Star Trek, X-Men…). It’s a great way of repairing writing and other filmmaking wrong turns. Feel free to imagine your own version of this – Star Wars anyone? Another pass at [...] Click to continue reading this post

How I Sometimes Feel

tar_pits_entrapment_eventIn fact, the last several days have felt like this, with regards big decisions about various administrative roles I’ve been asked to consider taking on. It never seems to end, and I am terrible at saying no to as many things as I should. And I have a bad habit of doing things to the best of my ability and hence I get a reputation as the guy to ask to do a task since I did a good job last time, and so it gets me sucked in deeper into the administrative quagmire, and so on and so forth.

Rather like the “entrapment events” that happened in the La Brea Tar Pits so long ago (have a read of what I wrote about those on a field trip to the Page Museum a while back). I was wandering around the LACMA and Tar Pits grounds yesterday evening after a shoot for a show (a fun thing coming that I’ll let you know about shortly) and made a phone call to say, after ten days of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Bent Cog

bent_cog_bromptonHere’s what almost ruined my morning on Monday. I decided to cycle the Brompton all the way into work, and went a different way as a change of scenery. At some point, my bike chain started making quite the racket, with a jarring action as I pedalled, but there was nothing visible wrong with the chain, and the gears seemed to be working just fine in terms of shifting – but the problem persists in all gears: The chain keeps trying to jump off the rear wheel every few inches, and then pops back on again. I could not see the problem at all, and I had to get into work for a meeting. My working theory was that I’d stretched the chain somehow so that it no longer fits the bike, but none of the tools I had were going to be able to help with that.

Happily, that different way I’d chosen meant that I could struggle on for a bit longer (enough to get me out of traffic, and do a bit of coasting when I could) and then walk the Brompton over from the end of Virgil to the subway stop at Wilshire and Vermont and complete my journey using the Red and Expo lines.

When I got it home, I put the bike on the high stand, and did a bit of investigation with the better visibility, and there it was. Bizarrely, the larger of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Sketchy Freedom

downtown_towers_26_05_2014Memorial Day – 26th May 2014. I arrive at downtown Los Angeles to enjoy a few moments of the pure joy of looking. Of seeing something in front of me well enough to make a rough representation of it on a piece of paper in front of me, for the pure hell of it. This is the essence of sketching. It is about seeing. I’m looking for the… something.

My hunt is over. I see the scene I want, just off the Water Court, a few minutes from the top of the (closed) Angel’s Flight rail. The sun is streaming through the portal framed by the two closest buildings. The further ones make sharp geometry against the 4:00pm sky. I’m also curious to try some new coloured pens, and I like that each building suggests a different colour. I’ve got about 15 minutes before I have to leave to pick someone up.

I sit. I start. Immediately I see the guard see me from across the way, and within a minute or two he is by my side, standing in front of me. He has the “You’re not allowed to do X” look on his face, but he’s trying to start out well. I’ve had this before, right in this public space, when a guard decided that I should not take photos of the buildings. Despite all the other tourists who do so. He begins:

You know, usually we… Are you an architecture student?

Excuse me?

Are you an architecture student?

Well, what are you asking me, really?

Are you an architecture student? [...] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front XII: The Nuts and Bolts of Enthalpy in Quantum Gravity

So it happened again. I got musing to myself about something and decided to do a quick computation to check it out, and it took me down an interesting rabbit hole, which resulted in me writing a nice little paper at the end of last week that appeared today on the arxiv. I think the physics is really really nice. Let me tell you a bit about it. It is in the same area of ideas that I mentioned last time, concerning that paper I wrote last month. So let me pick up the story there, since I did not really touch on the core of the story. [Note: for non-experts, the following will get somewhat technical and full of terms and ideas that I will not explain. Sorry.]

One of the things that might have struck you (if you’re an expert in the area) from my proposal to make heat engines out of black holes that do real mechanical work like the engines you read about in physics textbooks is that there ought to be no actual mechanical work since there’s no pistons – no pistons changing volumes and so forth. That is (or rather, was) a missing ingredient in the standard thermodynamics of black holes in quantum gravity. Well, that all changed a short few years ago with the work of a number of authors, particularly with the clear suggestion of David Kastor, Sourya Ray, and Jennie Traschen, and work by Brian Dolan, with a fair bit of followup investigations by various other authors including some I’ll mention below. (Update: Two reviews, with different foci, can be found in here and here.) The general idea is that if you allow the cosmological constant \Lambda to be a thermodynamical variable as well (and there is a long history of authors considering this in various contexts), where it naturally acts like a pressure p = -\Lambda/8\pi G, (G is Newton’s constant, and I’m setting various other constants to unity in the usual way) then you naturally include a conjugate to that variable that should be the pressure.

For a simple static black hole like Schwarzschild, the volume turns out to the the naive volume you get by taking the radius of the black hole and forming [...] Click to continue reading this post

Making Marks

Been a while since I got to do some sketching. It is good practice to try to do something every day, but that fell by the wayside a little as far as proper sketches went. It has been busy the last week and a bit, and my subway time has been during very busy times when there’s not enough space to get out pen and paper and sketch a person without becoming a spectacle… and during the moments where I might have caught something, I’ve actually been calculating – working out questions for the final exam in the General Relativity class, and (more recently) doing some computations for a paper I’ll tell you about shortly.

Anyway, when time is short, I sometimes like doing quick sketches with a thicker pen. Stops me from digging into the details too much. In fact, I’m really liking that as a sketch mode these days… You make your lines boldly and you’re stuck with your choices, and so it gets you thinking about what’s globally important carefully before jumping in.

montage_of_marker_drawings_05_2014

It is great and satisfyingly distracting fun. Anyway, between this and that over the last day or two I did a few quick faces based on some photos I found in a [...] Click to continue reading this post

A New Shower!

Camelopardalids_2014-Radiant_HD1….Let’s hope it is not equipped with a low-flow shower head though. If you get a chance this evening, find a wide area of sky away from as many lights as you can (it does not have to be perfectly dark, but the darker the better). There is a new meteor shower, the Camelopardalids…. It is new because the comet debris responsible (we’re flying through debris left over from its tail) has not intersected with our orbit before, but things have been changing a bit (apparently due to Jupiter’s gravitational pull) and as a result we’ll go right through it for the first time (as far as records show). It is expected that there’s a good chance that it will be a high event shower, and it has also been said – I forgot where I read this – that the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Shade Emergency!

Well, making it was a bit like a Lego project, and so… fun! Basically, it is ridiculously hot here. The last couple of days have been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and there are more days of this sort to come. This is not pleasant, in my view. I tend to operate very poorly at such temperatures, and the sun is oppressively hot, feeling like it is hammering on your head, neck, any exposed areas. (We had a wave of this sort a few weeks ago too, which resulted in a new investments in a new shape of hat.)

My main concern however is the various plants in the garden. The planting of Summer crops this year was quite late (largely because the Winter crops were slow to develop due to lack of Winter rain) and so they are still at the delicate stage where a day or two of strong hot sunlight can destroy them completely. No amount of watering can save them from this sun. So I decided to make some shades to reduce the amount of sun on various plants in the garden and on the patio. The idea was to make a nice geometrical shape that allows the plants to be nicely displayed while at the same time protecting them from that mid-morning to mid-afternoon hammering heat that I’ve seen burning the leaves on several plants. I put together a prototype design, and you can see the steps in the photos: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Advice at Graduation

It is Commencement on Friday, here at USC. Thousands of students will be dressing up in gowns and taking part of the ceremonies marking the ending of their time here at USC and the beginning of the rest of their lives. It’s an exciting time.

Merrill Balassone and a team from USC Media Relations came by my office a few weeks ago to take 15-20 minutes of time to do a prototype of a project on this very subject of commencement. The result was fun, and apparently they used it to build onto in order to make the final short video you can see below. advice_film_stillThey did a great job! It is a group of USC professors and staff** giving brief thoughts to graduating students upon their graduation. You’ll maybe guess what I say in my segment. It is a theme I mention here a lot, as part of my personal war on people being shut out of (or shutting themselves out of) participation in aspects of our society.

The summary of the piece is here and the YouTube video is embedded below: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Metro Goes for All the Science Tropes

science_metro_poster I think the people at LA Metro were trying to go for all of the visual science tropes in one cliché-filled glance! I’m a big fan of LA Metro, as you know from several posts about it here, so don’t misunderstand my poking fun at their ad I spotted on a bus stop bench. I think it is to do with helpful apps for your phone – presumably they help you use the system more easily, because of…science? More generally, I’d love to believe that people will take the train more because scientists are involved in designing the logistics, but there’s so much evidence against this on both counts, like having the Blue line and the Expo line – that share the same main platform – both boast BLUE as their colours. But put that all aside for now, and let’s simply count off all the sure-fire imagery that will [...] Click to continue reading this post

Old School Writer

posting_stuff…Yeah. Somehow sending proposals and samples of manuscripts around by email does not really feel super-exciting to me. But it is the way things are done now, it seems. But this afternoon, I found myself doing something very old-school, which I rather enjoyed, perhaps because it connected me with writers through the ages: Printing up some special packages (proposal, samples, etc, of the book project), putting them into envelopes and schlepping them down to the post office, getting in line, and [...] Click to continue reading this post

That Time of Year

jacaranda_april_2014Well, it is that time of year. The Jacarandas peaking is one of the many LA markers of the seasons for me. It means that classes will soon be over (in fact they are now) and I’ll be saying goodbye to a group of students, either because a class is over, or because students I’ve taught in earlier classes are graduating and leaving USC. Either way, it is always a time of mixed feelings, and a sense of being in transition in a number of ways. The Spring is already beginning to feel like it is rolling into Summer, and I’m clearing my desk of one set of things and making way for other things.

(Oh, and of course, the other thing that happens this year is that I seem to end up doing a post like this at around this time, right down to within a few days. It usually involves a picture of a Jacaranda tree. See here and look at the list of related posts below.)

I had an extraordinarily good group of students in my Spring class this year. As you may recall it was an undergraduate General Relativity class (see earlier posts on this by searching on that topic). We ended up having a lot of fun with the topic itself, and things were extra good because the students were very [...] Click to continue reading this post

When Stars Go Bang…

I learned* that over on the Huffington Post, Christian Ott (Caltech) wrote a piece describing research on modelling stellar explosions using supercomputers. When a star goes supernova, what exactly happens? Capturing the physics that goes on is a very difficult problem to do, and in the article he explains some of the difficulties, and some of the recent progress.

There’s a slide show showing some of the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Morning Caricatures

morning_caricatures_26_04_2014_smallLovely bit of sitting in the sun for a short while after breakfast this morning relaxing by doing some quick freehand sketches from pictures in a magazine. I was experimenting with a pen I love but don’t use much at all – One of those nice inky brush pens by Pentel. Gives some interesting lines that take some getting used to since it is quite a different mark-making tool than the pens I [...] Click to continue reading this post

A Monday Interview

On Monday 28th April at 8 PM Eastern time (5 PM Pacific) I’ll take part in a live radio interview that you might want to listen to, on a show called Alpha Centauri and Beyond. I guess I’m in the “Beyond” bit? I don’t really know anything about the show except that they like to bring people on to discuss ideas, and when I get a call to come and help sprinkle a bit of science, you know I’m likely to say yes if I can spare the time.

You can see a link to the details here, and you can listen online. As you can see it is advertised as being about me explaining string theory. Well of course that billing is nothing to do with me – I can’t hope to explain any complicated subject like that in the time available – but if asked I will do my best to try and motivate some of the ideas behind the subject. I hope it will be a fun interview and that [...] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front, XI: Holographic Heat Engines!

Yes, you heard me right. Holographic Heat Engines. I was thinking recently about black holes in universes with a cosmological constant and their thermodynamics. I had an idea, it led to another, then another, then some calculations, and then a couple of days of writing, calculating, and thinking… then a day to cool off and think about other things. Then I came back to it, decided it was still exciting as an idea and so tidied it all up as a paper, made some diagrams, tidied some more, and voila! A paper submitted to the arxiv.

I’m sort of pleased with all of it since it allowed me to combine a subject I think is really fun (although often so bleakly dull when presented at undergraduate level) – heat engines – with contemporary research ideas in quantum gravity and high energy physics. So I get to draw some of the cycles in the p-V plane (graph of pressure vs volume) representing the inner workings of engines of particular designs (just like you might have seen long ago in a physics class yourself) and compute their efficiency for doing mechanical work in exchange for some heat you supply. It is fundamental that you can’t heat_enginedo that with 100% efficiency otherwise you’d violate the second law of thermodynamics – that’s why all engines have to have some exhaust in the form of heat, giving an efficiency represented by a quantity \eta that is less than one, where one is 100% efficient. The diagram on the left illustrates the key pieces all engines must have, no matter what working substance you’re using. The details of the design of the engine are what kind of cycle you taking it through and what the properties (“equation of state”) your working substance has. In the case of a car, for example, the working substance is cleverly mixed up with the source of heat – the air/gasoline mix forms a “working substance” that gets expanded and compressed in various ways (in the green bit of the diagram), but the fact that it also burns releasing heat means it is also the source of the heat that comes into the engine (the flow from the red bit) to be (in part) turned to work, and the remainder flowing out to the blue (exhaust). Very clever.

The cool thing here is that I’m using black holes as the working substance for [...] Click to continue reading this post

Eclipse Progress

eclipse_progress_15_04_2014_cvjDid you catch the eclipse last Monday? It was wonderful. Here’s a little snap I took of the progress (taken with an iPad camera precariously through the lens of a telescope, pointing out of a bedroom window, so not the best arrangement). One of the striking things about looking at the progress of it is just how extra three-dimensional the moon seems as the earth’s shadow slowly covers it. It really makes one’s whole mind and body latch on to the three dimensional reality of the sky – you really feel it, as opposed to just knowing it in your head. That’s sort of hard to explain – and you’re not going to see it in any photo anyone can show – so I imagine you are not really sure what I’m getting at if [...] Click to continue reading this post

Self-Similar Dinner

romanesco_fractal_20_04_2014_2
Eventually, although a bit over-priced in the Hollywood farmer’s market, I do fall for these at least once in the season. As someone whose job and pastimes involve seeing patterns everywhere, how can I not love the romanesco? It’s a fractal! There are structures that repeat themselves on different scales again and again, which is the root of the term “self-similar”. Fractals are wonderful structures in mathematics (that have self-similarity) that I urge you to find out more about if you don’t already know (just google and follow your nose). And [...] Click to continue reading this post